11 December 2013

Sugar and Tea

History is what has happened, in act and thought; it is also what historians make of it.
Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (2005)
I am reading a book that I bought three years ago on a discount table in London: John Griffiths, Tea: The Drink that Changed the World (2007). At the time that I bought it, I thought of it as connected to a spate of recent topical books concerned with basic foods. Tea, of course, is very British, and an appropriate book to buy in London. The appeal of the book was partly in its resonance with Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (2003); Bennett Alan Weinburg and Bonnie K. Bieler, The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug (2000); Iain Gately, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization (2001). I quoted from the last of these in "Death in Jamestown".

I started this book in London, or shortly after I returned home, but then set it aside as other priorities displaced it. Last week, after finishing the remodeling of our living room, we moved upstairs a bookcase that had been in our guest bedroom. This bookcase contains the books that I bought in London, including several concerned with Jack the Ripper and Griffiths's Tea. It seemed time to read one or more of those books. Then, I was asked it I could teach a new course at the university where I teach occasional courses. This course, The Atlantic World, is at the margins of my areas of expertise, and so requires quite a bit of preparation (thankfully I have several months).

I started anew on Tea: The Drink that Changed the World in full knowledge that it would do more to trace connections between Great Britain and Asia than the colonial worlds of the Atlantic. On the other hand, I considered also that tea and the taxes placed upon it in the eighteenth century were a central element in the long history of separation of colonies from their European founders. This process began in the Atlantic and later spread to other parts of the world. The Boston Tea Party is the subject of chapter four in Griffiths text.

Aside from a single program at Johns Hopkins University established in the 1960s, the institutionalization of Atlantic history as a distinct subject has been limited to less than the past two decades. Harvard's International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, spearheaded by Bernard Bailyn, began in the mid-1990s. Among the criticisms of this emerging field are that by highlighting connections across the Atlantic, it risks minimizing connections outside.

I was thinking about the relationship between trans-Atlantic connections and global ones when I fell upon this passage concerning tea and sugar in Griffiths's Tea.
During the eighteenth century the population of Britain nearly doubled from just under seven million to well over 13 million. During that time annual consumption of sugar from the West Indian colonies rose from 4lb a head in the 1690s to 24lb in the 1790s. Slavery provided the free labour that fuelled this growth, most of it on the back of tea drinking. Tea was taken without milk. so usually sugar was added to offset the bitter taste from leaves that had been processed many months before and were often ill-packed for their long sea voyage from China. (18)
Although sugar originated in the Pacific and spread across Asia and the Mediterranean before it became a staple in Europe, the history of sugar consumption in Britain is intimately connected to British colonies in the Atlantic, especially Barbados. Indeed, sugar may well serve as a topic around which I might build part of my course on The Atlantic World. But, where sugar and the English are concerned, there will often be a cup of tea.

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